Enslaved - E - (9.5/10)
Published on October 9, 2017
Flying way up high,
Where the cold wind blows
Form many, 2012’s RIITIIR represents a highpoint or even the apex of Enslaved’s illustrious career. For myself, however, it has always felt like the sound of the band going too far off the progressive deep end. Coming off the back of 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini—which remains not only my favourite Enslaved album but potentially my favourite black metal album of all time—RIITIIR seemingly traded that and the band’s preceding records’ careful blend of extreme and progressive metal textures for a mish-mash of progressive experiments that never quite gelled properly to my ears, and which clashed jarringly with what few black metal elements remained. So why the long, personal preamble about RIITIIR, given that Enslaved went on to release the more consistent (if somewhat less convincing) In Times (2015) between then and now? Because, the band’s newest effort—the enigmatically-titled E—represents the missing link between that album and what came before it—finally putting that remarkably progressive leap in Enslaved’s career into proper perspective at long last.
First-off: the album is called “E” not “M”. The title derives from the Elder Futhark rune Ehwaz, which is pronounced like the modern English “E” although it represents that alphabet’s letter “M” so as to resemble a horse. Along with the horse, Ehwaz also represents trust and co-operation due to the longstanding relationship between horses and humans, and can be incorporated to represent any number of symbiotic relationships, such as “the duality of man and nature, present and past personalities within one self, [and] the conscious fear and the subconscious drive.” Having said that, there is a lot about actual horses on this album. The record opens with a plethora of horse sounds and culminates in its greatest offering comes in the form of a centrepiece entitled “Sacred Horse”. The track proves to be not only the greatest Opeth track since “Hex Omega” but likely the best Enslaved song since “Lightening” as well. The Opeth comparison might be a cheap and obvious one, but the track more specifically recalls that band’s work on the unjustifiably overlooked Watershed (2008) due to it’s prevalent organ flourishes and distinctive style of riffing1 than the general progressive metal fare that usually draws such comparisons.
While E maintains (and more effectively implements) a lot more of the band’s blackened edge than Enslaved’s two previous offerings, it is most definitely a progressive album at heart. From the record’s outset the listener is greeted with an almost three-minute instrumental section that strongly suggests that the band might have finally taken the plunge and gone the full Floyd. Yet, even by Enslaved’s standards, this record is incredibly varied, and those initial floaty, reflective moments soon give way to the band’s trademark textured rhythms and eventually a thundering blackened charge, by way of the kind of janky, off-kilter interlude you might expect of the band’s only real completion in Ihsahn. Similar comparisons can be made between the Emperor frontman’s solo ventures and closer “Hindsight”, which features the kind of frantic saxophone contributions you should have come to expect from the genre at this point—this time courtesy of Norwegian jazz musician Kjetil Møster—blended into the kind of ethereal vocal outro usually associated with Devin Townsend. Elsewhere, “Axis Of The World” recalls the Opeth-ian associations made above, with its ‘70s prog fuzz and heavy organ presence—although, in Enslaved’s case, thankfully not at the expense of any other further musical development or otherwise redeeming qualities—while “The River’s Mouth” and “Feathers Of Eolh”, which features a guest spot from Wardruna’s Einar Kvitrafn Selvik and flutist Daniel Mage, rectify RIITIIR’s grandiose template with the more extreme origins from whence it came.
Each and every member of Enslaved is performing at the top of their game on E, and the record’s compositions are next to flawless. Special praise, however, must be given to newcomer Håkon Vinje (Seven Impale, Skuggsjá), who takes over from longtime collaborator Herbrand Larsen. Larsen’s keys and especially his clean vocals have been a defining feature of Enslaved in their modern, progressive incarnation, and Vinje manages to comfortably match Larsen’s tones while also bringing his own distinct presence and contributions to the fold. The band’s frontman, Grutle Kjellson, likewise, gives a spectacular performance, and the effectiveness with which he employs his throaty rasp here is a major factor in the comparison between this record and RIITIIR, where his harsher vocals often felt weaker and out of place; not to mention under-utilized.
E is another phenomenal record from Enslaved, who continue to be one of the most unique and forward thinking acts in all of extreme metal. The kinds of comparisons made here—Ihsahn, Opeth, Devin Townsend—should give you a pretty good idea of what sort of level these guys are operating on if you haven’t come across them before, and if you have, then prepare to be blown away once again. This album stands next to RIITIIR as one of the most ambitious albums in Enslaved’s discography. Yet, the band manage to cram so much more into its condensed running time than they did on that already incredibly expansive release—all the while doing so with much more coherence and fluidity, without neglecting the more extreme heritage that is perhaps lacking on that earlier effort.